Deck Railings – What Are Your Options?

Deck railings for certain heights of decks (usually decks two feet or more above ground, depending on code) are mandatory, but that doesn’t mean you have to have the standard wood posts we’re all used to seeing on most decks.

You have options – from the real tree limb, custom built railings like James Pader at AWoodRailing.com creates for his clients, to tempered glass, wire cable, or rebar or wrought iron designs. You can personalize your deck railings however you like – as long as they meet code for your city.

Wooden Railings

Photo courtesy of James Pader, AWoodRailing.com

Wooden railings never look better than the day they’re installed. They’ll do to meet code requirements, and to keep people safe, but they’re the most basic railing choice. They’re affordable, easy to install, and will last the length of your deck if properly maintained. However, wood railings are more susceptible to rot, decay, warping, insect, pest, and animal damage, and require the most maintenance of all railings.

Expect to pay between $80 and $150 per wood post, depending on the type and the thickness of the post. Wooden handrails cost around $10 per foot. Cedar, mahogany and a variety of hardwoods make great frames since some of them are rot-resistant. Wood is cheaper to install, but if you don’t love maintaining it on a regular basis (staining and painting) it’s not the best choice.

Steel Deck Railings

Photo courtesy of Fortress Railing https://www.fortressrailing.com

Steel deck railings are typically pre-welded so they are very strong. They’re also easily customized. Think of them as an enhanced or modern version of the old wrought iron railings of yesteryear. If you like the look and traditional feel of real wrought iron, you can have that too, although true wrought iron is far more expensive due to the special requirements and welding skills needed to work with it. If you’re just going for the authentic look of wrought iron (the ornamental scrollwork, twists, baskets, or knuckles on the balusters etc.), steel railings are the way to go. Not only are they stronger than iron, they’re easier to maintain, repair and install – and are far less expensive.

Aluminum Deck Railings

Photo courtesy of Aluminum Railing http://www.aluminumrailing.com

Aluminum deck railings have the advantage of being strong, lightweight, modern, clean, sleek, durable, and very easy to maintain. There are very few, if any “cons” to aluminum railings. Aluminum resists whatever Mother Nature can throw at it. It’s resistant to rain, hail, snow and ice as well as corrosion, rust, decay, and insect infestation. There are no squirrels or woodpeckers who can touch it. It looks new for decades.

Aluminum stainless steel posts generally cost about $75 to $80 per part, while the handrails cost around $10 per foot. Aluminum is less expensive than stainless steel, and requires less maintenance.

Trex Deck Railings

Photo Courtesy of Trex Railings https://Trex.com

Trex deck railings are like Trex decking -durable, easy to maintain, and resistant to weather, insects, extreme temperatures, rust, decay and corrosion. Trex railings also come in seven different colors, making them easy to compliment your decking color.

Glass Deck Railings

Photo Courtesy of Invisirail  http://invisirail.com/

The greatest advantage of glass railings is that they’re transparent. If you have children, a pool, or a great view, glass should be one of your top choices. Homeowners get a full, clear view of their pool even from afar. You can always check on the occupants of the pool or other areas of your property if you have children. 

A glass railing allows deck users to see any spectacular features – like mountain ranges, rivers, ponds, gardens or landscaping without having to squint through balusters and other rail features. Yes, glass does have to be cleaned, but the time spent cleaning is worth the payoff of the views.

Things to Consider When Choosing Your Railing

The primary considerations for most decks are cost and maintenance, but there are other factors to think about as well.

Safety. Decks and deck railings must meet certain codes for a reason – the safety of those using them. Check your codes as they vary from city-to-city and can impact cost, installation etc. Most codes require a certain spacing between the balusters (vertical supports between the posts). The opening between balusters should be less than four inches. This is important if you have small children or pets who can easily fit between the balusters and fall off of the deck.
The required railing height can also vary from city to city. The most common minimum height requirements are 36 or 42 inches from the deck surface to the top of the railing. These measurements will factor into the cost of the railings you choose, but don’t neglect safety for cost.

Color. Some railings come in a color, either painted on, or like Trex, made in a solid color. How easy or difficult will it be to change the color if you choose to?

Architecture. Does the railing fit in with your home’s architecture? Railings have a dramatic impact on the look and feel of your deck, and home. Will the railing blend in, stand out, or overwhelm the overall look of your home?

Fittings. Some of the things to consider when choosing a deck railing, especially if it’s a cable railing, is what kind of post hardware you want. Some hardware hides the receiver and tensioner fittings inside the posts, and others are located outside the post. Depending on how close a post is to your house, or another obstacle, you may not have a choice of fittings and must use an inside-to-inside kit. Your contractor can tell you what your options are.

Deciding what kind of fitting to have depends on what is called the “View Run.” This is the outward facing run where you’ll be looking out at the view (yard, pond, trees, etc.) and where you want the least amount of visual interference. Start with this run and then build around it to ensure you have the best view from your deck. Most contractors will use (outside-to-outside) post hardware to hide the receiver and tensioner fittings. Ask to see photos of the railing installed so you know what the finished rail will look like.

Material and maintenance. No matter what type of railing you get, you’re going to have some maintenance to do on it. Wood railings are the highest maintenance, followed by composites and then steel, and finally aluminum. Maintenance can involve anything from sanding, staining, sealing (wood) to painting, or simply hosing down the rails when they get dirty. If you like a low maintenance deck, strongly consider aluminum railings.

Contractor experience. Some contractors hire a company to install specialty railings, other tackle the job themselves. Try to find a contractor with experience and certification for installing the railing you select. Many companies have specific requirements for installation and improper installation can be dangerous at worst, or void your warranty at least.

Cost. Railings are priced by the linear foot. To get a more accurate estimate of what they’ll cost, multiply how much railing you’ll need by measuring around the outer edge of your deck, and multiply that times the linear foot. For instance a 40’ x 20’ deck next to a wall of your house, minus five feet where the stairs to the ground floor is open, leaves 55 feet of railing.

According to Homeadvisor.com, the average homeowner pays between $2,000 and $3,500 for a cable railing system.[1] A typical contractor charges up to $110 per hour for the installation of a railing. While you might be able to get a lower rate if you shop around, the lowest price isn’t always the best deal. Railings are a crucial part of your deck design. Take your time and explore your options before deciding!


[1] https://www.homeadvisor.com/cost/stairs-and-railings/cable-railings/